Governance 3.0: Pushing Past Our Organizational Walls

photo (4)By Richard Mittenthal, president & CEO, TCC Group

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. There’s still time to register!

At TCC Group, I have spent several decades helping nonprofits build the capacity of their boards. I am looking forward to sharing our current explorations in this area at the upcoming BLF gathering by suggesting that, to contribute much-needed expertise and provide maximum support, boards need to enhance their “relational capacity.”

For the purposes of our discussion, I am defining relational capacity as “the ability of a nonprofit organization to clearly understand its niche and strategic positioning within a larger ecosystem; appreciate the positioning and value of other stakeholders; instill trust in, and network with, other key actors and institutions; and promote and engage in healthy relationships that function within and in support of a larger system.”

There is a new set of exciting and challenging capacity needs related directly to the notion that it is no longer enough to be organizationally sound without a connection to a larger “ecosystem.” This ecosystem can be a regional community, based in the geographic setting in which a nonprofit sits, or it can be unconfined by geographic boundaries with its connections based in its shared commitment to a particular cause or the social change it seeks to achieve (e.g., the LGBT, environmental, or breast cancer research communities, etc.).

While the need to enhance performance in organizational functions, including staffing, program, technology, and other areas, in light of this larger environment has been acknowledged, governance has been mostly absent from the discussion. We believe that capacity building for boards needs to evolve to more fully incorporate organizations in relation to their larger environments.

At TCC Group, we have begun to identify and examine the development of the skills and behaviors boards must consider to adapt to this new perspective. At my upcoming session at BLF, we will provide an opportunity to explore the implications inherent in a nonprofit’s need to acquire relational capacity in its governance, and the ways in which board leadership can contribute to encouraging systematic acquisition of these capacities to enable the organization to work more effectively in collaboration with other social sector actors.

We have identified the following capacities, grouped in three broad areas, to factor more prominently in our capacity-building work with board leadership:

  • Capacity to truly understand the ecosystem
  • Capacity to engage with an ever-evolving ecosystem
  • Capacity to adapt organizational structure relative to the ecosystem

The mere understanding of the interrelationship of nonprofits within an ecosystem and other capacity frameworks, ideas, theories, and concepts does not necessarily translate into effective capacity building. Grounded in a wealth of experience and armed with new technologies and information, TCC Group is exploring new and more sophisticated methods of helping nonprofit boards, their organizations, and ecosystems actualize their performance. The following methods have begun to guide our work with boards, and session participants will gain familiarity and experiential knowledge of each throughout the course of the BLF session:

  • Creating effective consumers of capacity building
  • Including change management support
  • Analyzing the organization’s place in the ecosystem
  • Engaging diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Creating targeted diagnosis and prioritized entry to enact change

I will be using a session structure that relies on a combination of sharing TCC’s latest learnings, listening to the ways in which a panel of nonprofit CEOs and board chairs are considering ways to acquire greater relational capacity, and interactive discussion. We aim to provide conference attendees with the groundwork to embrace the basics of Board Capacity Building 3.0.

TCC Group, a national consulting firm that works exclusively in the social sector. Over the years, Richard Mittenthal has advised many nonprofit organizations and grantmaking foundations on issues of governance.

 

Clenched Fists? Open Hands?

photo (4)By Ryan D. Jacobs, CEO, Ten Thousand Villages Canada

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. There’s still time to register!

More than a decade ago, a mentor of mine shared an image that has stuck with me ever since. It was inspired by a book by Henri Nouwen titled With Open Hands:

I have come to believe that we approach each and every situation — and life in general — somewhere along a continuum between clenched fists and open hands.

Being in the clenched fists state equates to close-mindedness — an unwillingness to embrace (or sometimes even explore) new possibilities. It’s a defensive stance, the expectation and assumption that almost everything that comes one’s way is an attack on one’s position or values.

In sharp contrast, operating from an open hands perspective represents a willingness to engage with other people and with ideas that might challenge you to move beyond your comfort zone. It requires humility and empathy, so you can see things from the perspective of others.

I think we all know individuals who generally approach life from either one of these states. You quickly learn that you need to “walk on eggshells” around some people, because anything you say can be interpreted as a challenge or a threat. Even the most innocuous suggestion can set off a defensive rant.

On the other hand, there are those who are able to approach even the most difficult situations with openness and level-headedness. They don’t jump to conclusions, and they take the time to really listen to ideas and opinions — even ones that might require them to rethink their own position.

The reality is we’ve all been in both places. We’ve all had days when everything seems to go wrong, and when no one can say or do anything right. It’s easy to reach a point where all you want to do is shut everyone and everything out.

But after, say, spending a lazy Saturday afternoon curled up on the couch with a good book, you’re likely to have the patience and composure of a saint, even when your kids spill melted red freezie all over your white chair. (This recently happened to me … the spilling part, but alas, not the patience part!)

As a leader in a nonprofit organization — whether serving on staff or on the board of directors — it’s important not to close yourself off to people and ideas. We all come at the challenges that face our organizations with different histories, assumptions, and perspectives. But if we’re all working toward the same goal, then we need to respect each other enough to at least hear each other out with openness.

Then, and only then, can we truly tap into the potential that exists within the talented individuals who are working to help our organization achieve its mission.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Have you closed your hands to the world, and to those around you? Are you protecting yourself against something negative, but losing access to all that is positive in the process? Or are you keeping an open posture, not just toward those who are easy to be around, but also toward those who push your buttons?
  2. What is your default state? Clenched fists or open hands?

Ryan Jacobs is presenting a session titled “It Takes a Village: The Intersection of Board and Staff Roles in a Nonprofit Turnaround.”

 

Leadership & Assessment: Measurement Matters

tumblr_m9z3f7mpVU1qe8ttfo1_400By Melissa Sines, accreditation manager, Standards for Excellence Institute

This post in one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. It’s not too late to register!

Lately, a couple of really great, tongue-in-cheek blogs have emerged that poke fun at working in the nonprofit sector. If you’re missing “When you Work at a Nonprofit” and “Nonprofit with Balls,” check them out. Whether you’re a board member, an executive director, or a staffer, you’re likely to come across a post that will remind you of the way your organization operates and make you laugh. And as far as I’m concerned, laughing is better than suffering a mental breakdown! The image above, titled “When your boss asks you to do her job for you and you still only get paid $12 an hour,” made me laugh.

When the laughter fades, however, it’s back to the really hard work we have to do to keep our organizations running efficiently, effectively, transparently, and with accountability. I’ve been working at the Standards for Excellence Institute for three and a half years now and can assure you that organizations that invest resources in assessing and evaluating their operations are stronger and operate at a higher level than organizations that do not. And, organizations that take steps to honestly assess their leaders’ leadership ability, strategic planning, and visioning are on an entirely different playing field than others.

Leaders should be smart about the benchmarks they’re using to measure their performance and that of their organization. Benchmarking against standards that demand deep evaluation and continuous improvement will help leaders think through the priorities and goals they set throughout the organization.

Some benchmarks are easy: Do you file your Form 990 on time? Does the board review budget to actual information at least quarterly? Do your employees receive regular evaluations?

Others aren’t so easy to check off a list:

  • In what kinds of community-wide strategic partnerships are you engaging, and to what end?
  • Are you developing bench strength among your staff by providing relevant professional development opportunities and meaningful evaluation?
  • Is your organization inclusive of the community you serve, and if not, what needs to change to ensure that it is?
  • How do you evaluate your sources of income and determine which grants, contributions, or partnerships to pursue?
  • Are you able to communicate effectively and control your message in today’s fast-paced social web environment?
  • What policy issues are affecting your ability to meet your mission, and what (if any) positions are you taking on them?

These aren’t the kind of questions you can hand off to the administrative assistant, no matter how talented or efficient she or he may be. These questions engage leadership at all levels of the organization in a collective pursuit of excellence in management, governance, and operations.

A coherent, systems-based form of assessment is important because it allows you to identify areas for improvement and then focus your efforts around what matters most — achieving your mission. And, next time your employees or volunteers visit the nonprofit funny pages, they’ll be able to laugh at the way things used to be.

The Standards for Excellence session at this year’s BLF will introduce organizational leaders to a proven set of benchmarks that will help them assess their capacity, leadership, and accountability. Participants will utilize an assessment tool to measure the strength of their leadership and organization and have the opportunity to ask questions about how these benchmarks are implemented in different types and sizes of nonprofits. I encourage you to register for BLF today to access this and many other sessions that help you practice mindful leadership by design.

Melissa Sines works with the Standards for Excellence Institute as their accreditation manager. She co-founded the Frederick Giving Project, serves on the Frederick County Nonprofit Summit Planning Committee, the ABAG Regional Giving Circle Connector Committee, the Celebrate Frederick In the Street Committee, and the Leadership Frederick County Leaders on Loan Advisory Committee. Melissa is most happy when organizing people and projects to make good things happen.

 

An Executive Transition Tale

photo (4)By Marla Bobowick, CEO, Bobowick Consulting; David Martin, managing partner, Sterling Martin Associates; and Virginia O’Brien Record, client partner, Sterling Martin Associates

From determining an organization’s mission and purpose to securing financial resources so that the organization can fulfill that mission, nonprofit boards of directors are tasked with numerous jobs. While all of these tasks are critical to keeping the nonprofit successful, hiring the CEO may be the single most important decision that a nonprofit board makes.

Selecting the ideal CEO is a multi-step process, but it doesn’t end with the offer letter. The board is also responsible for ensuring a smooth transition so the new CEO and his or her team can get back to working the mission of your organization. Planning for a transition on the front end, following a deliberate process to engage the “perfect candidate,” and ensuring success on the back end can make all the difference. And yet,

  • many organizations don’t have a succession plan, and if they do, most board members don’t know where it is
  • few board members have been through a nonprofit executive search
  • search processes are often shrouded in secrecy because of concerns about confidentiality
  • despite the best of intentions, onboarding is often neglected because it comes at the tail end of a long process when it really is part of the transition continuum

In our BLF session, “An Executive Transition Tale: Succession Planning, Executive Search, Onboarding,” we will address the above issues and examine the story line of an executive transition from both the chief executive’s and the board’s perspective. We’ll discover that while these parties share a common goal — the success of the organization — they each have different concerns, goals, and expectations; understanding where the other side is coming from smooths out the transition process. We will explore major milestones along the way, demystify the executive search process, identify common pitfalls, and share pearls of wisdom.

And just as Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” was transformed by his apparitions — think Ghost of Leaders Past, Ghost of Leaders Present, and Ghost of Leaders Yet to Come — we will come to believe in the powers of a well-formulated succession plan, a deliberative executive search process, and a thorough and strategic onboarding process. Putting all of these pieces together is the key to a truly successful executive transition.

Through audience participation and roundtable discussions, Virginia will present the nuts and bolts of developing a sound succession plan; David will offer guidance to those in the midst of or about to embark on an executive transformation so that it, too, has a happy ending; and Marla will discuss the importance of having a solid onboarding process in place, thus closing the executive transition loop.

Hope to see you on October 9.

Marla Bobowick is an experienced nonprofit professional with a history of creative problem solving and extensive experience with board governance, strategy, research, and publishing. Prior to founding Bobowick Consulting, Marla was vice president of products at BoardSource, where she oversaw publications, online products, and research.

David Martin is managing partner of Sterling Martin Associates, an executive search firm that focuses on recruiting nonprofit leaders, primarily at the C-suite level. He has three decades of professional experience in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and, since founding Sterling Martin Associates in 2006, has led nearly 100 searches for U.S.-based nonprofit organizations. 

Virginia Record, a client partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Sterling Martin Associates, has strong subject matter expertise in the overall nonprofit management arena, having spent more than 35 years in nonprofit leadership positions, primarily in higher education and healthcare and focused on development and public affairs. She also has served on dozens of nonprofit boards of directors and has consulted with nonprofit organizations on matters ranging from governance and resource development to marketing and communications.

 

 

 

Moving Your Strategic Vision Forward While Growing Your Board

photo (4)By Dawn S. Reese, executive director and co-CEO, The Wooden Floor

I ran into another CEO the other day, and asked her if her organization had term limits in effect. In 2010, after conducting a BoardSource board self-assessment and reviewing its recommendations, The Wooden Floor implemented its first term limits policy. And now we were about to experience our first group of board members to be termed out. In our conversation, the CEO mentioned that she had experienced one downfall to term limits that I had never thought of — the board that you will have in the future may not be the board that made key and historic decisions for your organization and, therefore, may not have the passion required to fully execute on those decisions.

After concluding that this scenario could have a cataclysmic impact on The Wooden Floor’s own 10-year strategic vision that was developed in 2009, I came up with four key ways to mitigate the situation:

  • Tie board recruitment to strategic vision: Before you begin to recruit new board members, use your long-term vision as a key to develop a board member profile that includes an organizational overview, board member attributes, expectations for service, and the nomination process.
  • Make the vision known: Ensure as a part of all board recruitment activities that your strategic vision and the organization’s priorities are at the forefront of all discussions. Focus on recruiting board members who will have the fortitude and capacity to carry forward that vision. Help the candidates understand the critical needs of those you serve and how they may make a difference.
  • On-board effectively: Break the on-boarding process into at least two sessions. Some CEOs will give new board members a fire-hose of information, making it hard for those members to determine what information should be their priority. I believe the first session should be used to provide the new members with a full understanding of the strategic vision — its development, the strategic plan, high-level goals and objectives, as well as all major decisions and initiatives. It is a great time to reiterate what the board’s and CEO’s roles are in executing on this vision. The second session should be focused on board practices such as governance, finance, meetings and committees, mission and case for support, as well as fundraising opportunities.
  • Help them move the vision forward: Create a team environment. Make the new board members feel welcome, and create opportunities for them to assimilate as soon as possible with fellow board members as well as you. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “The Hidden Benefits of Keeping Teams Intact,” says that most managers (I would say organizations) underestimate the power of familiarity to drive performance. Create check-ins between the board and the CEO to ensure that the members are thinking of ways that they can have personal impact on the decisions that were made by their predecessors.

Dawn S. Reese has leveraged 27 years of business and nonprofit management experience to be a life-changer for low-income youth and help propel The Wooden Floor forward. Her BLF session is titled “Assess to Ascend: Moving Your Board and Organization Forward through Board Assessment.”

Legal Compliance By Design

photo (4)By Brooke Asiatico, founding member, and Katari Buck, member, Asiatico & Associates, PLLC

This post in one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place in Washington, DC, on October 9 & 10. We hope you will be joining us.

We’ve all seen the headlines. From mismanagement to insufficient oversight to criminal activity, nonprofit corporations are not immune from the very same compliance issues that affect for-profits. In some ways, nonprofits may be even more vulnerable to conditions that lead to noncompliance. Rightfully, the mission takes precedence, with governance sometimes taking a backseat. Therefore, the nonprofit board must ensure governance works in concert with, rather than as an impediment to, the organization’s mission-driven activities.

Culture of Compliance

The board can do so by creating a culture of compliance that permeates every level of the organization. From board members to other volunteers, the organization’s stakeholders should understand and embrace compliance as an effective way to ensure the organization’s long-term success.

We often hear from clients who have ignored legal compliance and need our help because they have been audited or investigated or because someone new has joined the organization and brought a new perspective to compliance review. The reasons for noncompliance are many and range from simply not knowing the legal requirements to willful misconduct by someone within the organization. The majority of cases stem from lack of good board oversight with the appropriate processes in place to identify and remedy noncompliant activities. An organization defending itself in an investigation has less time to focus on its mission, so the best strategy is to avoid the investigation altogether.

The Board’s Role

Compliance begins with the board, including selection and onboarding of new members, regular board meetings, and regular communication with the executive director/CEO, CFO, and other key officers. Board member and officer training is critical to ensure familiarity with the state and federal laws governing nonprofit and tax-exempt organizations and practical ways to maintain compliance.

Excellent board governance necessarily includes well-crafted policies and procedures to serve as a guide for both the board itself and the organization as a whole. We often encounter organizations with few, or even no, written governance or financial policies in place. Or, an organization may have excellent policies hidden away and collecting dust. While staff typically carry out the day-to-day activities of the organization, the board can create the framework for ensuring activities are carried out with both the mission and compliance in mind.

How well can your organization handle distraction? Because everything will not run smoothly 100 percent of the time, organizations must be prepared for when things go wrong. With the appropriate framework of compliance implemented by the board and carried out by the board, staff, and volunteers, compliance becomes such a permanent part of the organization’s culture that even a distracting event will not affect compliance efforts.

The Cost of Noncompliance

Some organizations and their leaders believe they cannot afford to hire a professional to assist in compliance efforts. In reality, however, they cannot afford not to. The consequences of noncompliance can be dire and may include internal financial losses caused by fraud, theft, or mismanagement, excise taxes, and penalties levied against individual board members, and in the most egregious cases, even loss of tax exempt status and criminal penalties. This, coupled with the potential negative media attention and loss of support, will be much more costly to an organization than including compliance in an organization’s goals and budget.

Instilling compliance values into an organization beginning with the selection of board members and continuing through every level of the organization will ensure the organization’s mission is never overshadowed by noncompliance and its resulting negative consequences.

Brooke Asiatico is the founding member of Asiatico & Associates, PLLC, a law firm providing trusted legal counsel to nonprofits of all sizes throughout the country. She has advised numerous clients through legal compliance matters, including guiding organizations through IRS audits and state agency investigations.

Katari Buck is a member of Asiatico & Associates, PLLC. She provides legal counsel to nonprofits, focusing on state and federal legal compliance, employment law, and general nonprofit corporate law.

Ethical Decision-Making for Managing Conflicts of Interest

photo (4)By Glenn Doggett, director of professional standards, CFA Institute

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the BoardSource Leadership Forum in Washington, DC, on October 9 & 10. We hope you will be joining us.

Professionals working for nonprofit organizations are likely to encounter situations of conflict of interest at some point. From the demands of donors to concerns about potential grant recipients, there are many decisions an organization must make to ensure it remains true to its stated mission. And when you factor in oversight of the long-term investable assets of the organization, some professionals may believe there are just too many potential conflicts to perform the job successfully.

At CFA Institute, we understand that employees at all levels likely will face an ethical dilemma at some point in their careers. However, just because an ethical challenge or conflict of interest arises does not mean the person facing that dilemma is morally deficient. They may simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Laws, regulations, professional standards, and codes of ethics can guide ethical behavior, but individual judgment is a critical ingredient in making principled choices and engaging in appropriate conduct. Establishing a framework for an ethical decision-making thought process prior to taking a particular action is a crucial step in supporting ethical conduct. Utilizing such a framework for ethical decision-making helps professionals effectively examine their conduct in the context of conflicting interests common to their profession and determine the best course of action to fulfill their responsibilities in an ethical manner.

Often decision frameworks are made based on a linear model or checklist tied to legal and regulatory requirements. Such processes often lead to compliant actions, without effectively addressing the conflict. By applying a principled-based framework, an individual would seek to identify the relevant ethical expectations alongside the regulatory requirements. Next, consider the necessary actions before making a final decision for those situations outside of the confines of “right” and “wrong.” A principles-based framework allows for the consideration of alternative approaches, especially important to the multitude of potential duties that are owed by a nonprofit professional.

Simply nurturing an inclination to do “what is right” is no match for the multitude of factors that could potentially influence the decisions a professional must make. We must regularly exercise ethical decision-making skills to develop the muscle memory necessary for fundamentally ethical people to make good decisions despite potential conflicts. Just as coaching and practice transform our natural ability to run across a field into the technique and endurance required to run a race, teaching, reinforcing, and practicing ethical decision-making skills prepare us to confront the hard issues effectively.

In our session at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, “Ethical Board Investment Committee Practices,” Jonathan Stokes and I will lead a discussion on how to apply an ethical decision-making framework. We will discuss benchmark levels of ethical and professional conduct for investment committees and external investment managers, and give attendees an opportunity to apply an ethical decision-making framework. Through this practice and peer discussion, you will further your personal ethical decision-making skills.

“To Boldly Go Where No One Else Has Gone Before”

photo (4)By Patrick Davis, independent consultant

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. We hope you will be joining us.

These introductory words to the classic Star Trek of the 1960s describe the five-year mission of the fictional starship Enterprise. It also summarizes the very real challenges faced by nonprofit executives and their boards going into the 21st century as they strengthen a partnership similar to the one formed between Captain Kirk and Commander Spock. Leadership in the 21st century requires a balance of both head and heart. During a recent workshop I presented on dialogue skills that was hosted by the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands (NAM), participants asked candid questions about governing their organizations into the future:

  • “How do we identify priorities and manage growth?”
  • “How do we maintain quality and satisfaction as we grow?”
  • “How do we bring together diverse resources and perspectives into a shared paradigm?”

One board chair of an organization going through rapid growth added “…and how to ensure we remember to bring our soul along with us?”

These questions get to the heart of a leader’s challenge to meet more needs with shifting resources. Old habits and ways simply don’t work in all situations anymore. We are at a transition point in our leadership practice, and the competency of holding bold dialogue around complex questions is key. Board chairs, CEOs, and leaders of both small and large nonprofits gathered in this workshop to hold a “dialogue on dialogue” for managing growth and change.

Deeper than these organizational challenges we also face personal questions such as

  • “How to balance my personal health and well-being with the pressing need to do more work?”
  • “Where is the best role for me in the next season of life?”

My own candid version of these personal matters is to ask myself, “Who am I to help others if my own life is a mess?”

As a consultant I ask these two questions about dialogue with clients:

  1. How are your leaders currently hosting dialogue across your organization? Most leaders are vague or unsure of this answer. If they are confident about their own practice then they are not sure how the leaders who are accountable to them are doing.
  2. Is dialogue as disciplined as your annual budget process? Most organizations, if honest, say “no” or are equally vague or unsure about how to do this.

Many leaders may not invest in this approach for themselves. However, if we begin offering these opportunities to benefit others who are managing the stress of acute change, then we may reap rewards as well. As super caregivers, our shadow may keep us from focusing on our own needs when sponsoring initiatives.

Whether beginning a career in nonprofit leadership or living into the second half of one, we all need to become more intentional at holding bold dialogue around these challenges that have no easy answers. The workshop reviews the four essential skills demonstrated in effective dialogue. It also reminds us that we are not alone with our deepest questions. The discipline of dialogue offers pragmatic support among colleagues, as we become a mutual village of support to raise our leadership competency to the next level of personal and professional growth.

Due to the urging of Bernie Beach, an executive director of a program in Detroit, Michigan, who used these skills with her board, and the support of Anne Hindery, CEO of the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands (NAM), this workshop (“To Boldy Go: Dialogue — Bridging the Art of Contemplation and Action in the 21st Century”) is now being held on the second day of the Board Source Leadership Forum. I invite you to join me as we review the principles of mindful dialogue, “…to seek out new life and civilizations….to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Patrick Davis, MA is a writer, teacher, and consultant to individuals and organizations facing acute change. Patrick brings 30 years of practical experience in various nonprofit settings and he holds a master’s degree in adult education with longstanding teaching associations in community colleges and centers that offer engaging approaches to leadership and professional development.

 

 

 

 

 

Consent Decision Making: The “Dynamic Governance” Model

photo (4)By Michael Kelrick, chair, biology department, Truman State University; fellow, PULSE

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, D.C. We hope you will be joining us.

What’s it like to swap the malfunctioning engines on a jet airliner in mid-flight, without crashing? That’s what the last five months have been like for me, as my colleagues and I have implemented “Dynamic Governance” (DG) in our nascent organization.

Some history: Our organization, the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE), is an unusual experiment, originating as an unprecedented venture of the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (of the National Institutes of Health), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Program leaders who promote the training of life scientists at these three agencies decided to gather a group of academics from diverse institution types to spark a transformation in life sciences education in the nation’s colleges and universities. Applicants were required to have administrative experience (e.g., as department chairs or deans) and to provide evidence of driving cultural change at their institutions. A nation-wide selection process yielded 40 PULSE Fellows who, for the most part, didn’t know each other. As if from thin air, our organization was born.

In our official fellowship year, we spent a total of only six working days together in person, during an inaugural and a closing meeting. Almost all our interaction was by e-mail, phone, and intermittent video conferences. Yet, by the end of that year, we had projects supported by seven separate grants totaling well over a million dollars. The steering committee of funding agencies that had created our group also choreographed our initial leadership structure; other leaders of working groups arose organically, though without group-defined responsibilities. Our organization was notable in many ways — highly diffuse; comprising many high-functioning, dedicated, and very busy people; remarkably collegial and collaborative; and increasingly aware of the need for better, more systematic communication and coordination. We searched for a mode of self-governance that would preserve and amplify our values and strengths — that valued all voices, shared leadership, open communication, and goal-aligned productivity – while providing a distinct, recognizable structure and process that we could adopt, deliberately. We chose Dynamic Governance, which is also known as sociocracy.

How’s our plane flying these days? For me, it’s been quite a ride. From the get-go, DG tenets helped us clarify a structural plan for PULSE that defined and streamlined the functional hierarchy of our organization. We had been struggling to envision these relationships ourselves, and suddenly, with input from our DG consultants, we had a parsimonious, elegant solution — qualities that make scientists rejoice! This organizational leap made immediate sense to many in the group, which in turn nurtured our confidence and sharpened our sense of our goals.

The signature element of DG processes is consent decision-making. When working groups (known as “circles” in DG) meet to discuss policies or elect circle members to functional roles, systematic procedures (rounds) are practiced, that include every circle member’s contribution. My first experience with the rounds process was a nominations round for a circle leadership role; here, each circle member names a nominee, followed by a description of the nominee’s attributes that suits him/her to the role. I was among the nominees mentioned early in the round; when it was my turn, I self-nominated and had to provide the accompanying self-description. For me, this was a bold choice outside my comfort zone…my heart was racing! In DG elections, a change round follows the nomination round; all circle members affirm or can amend their nominations, again with accompanying reasons. In the election I’m describing, all circle members changed their nominations to me! As the change round progressed, it felt like a gathering wave of endorsement, as the circle converged on a jointly held, conscionable solution. My experience of the emotional power of this process was remarkable. I believe this kind of public, reasoned assurance that acknowledges both rational and emotional input is a refreshing and crucial key to unleashing peoples’ potential. Imagine no more second-guessing, when silence must be accepted as assent! Heartfelt and thoughtful decision-making is the wonderful and surprising outcome with DG.

Michael Kelrick teaches in both the biology department and the environmental studies program at Truman State University, where he has served as Truman’s director of interdisciplinary studies and is currently chair of the biology department. Recently, his selection as a PULSE Fellow has led to learning about, advocating for, and adopting “Dynamic Governance” within the nascent PULSE national organization. His BLF session is titled “Consent Decision Making: The Dynamic Governance Model.” 

Enhance Your Impact Through “Design Thinking”

photo (4)By Theresa Reid, principal, Theresa Reid, PhD + Associates, Consulting

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, which is taking place in Washingtion, DC, on October 9 & 10. We hope you are planning to join us.

Once upon a time, a packaging designer came up with an ingenious, inexpensive, theft-reducing way for industries to package consumer products: Encase them in airtight, watertight, hard plastic shells. Soon, billions of plastic-encased consumer goods flooded retail shelves from coast to coast. Almost immediately, a chorus of profanity rose skyward across the land as people tried in vain to pry their goods loose from their hermetically sealed packaging. Hospital emergency rooms began routinely treating wounds from the knives, screwdrivers, scissors, and saws that maddened consumers used to get at their stuff.

This infamous example illustrates a major impetus behind the drive to incorporate “design thinking” into innovation-obsessed businesses: the need to understand, empathically, the experience of end users. Sealed plastic packaging is cheap and efficient for producers and retailers, but costly in terms of customers’ time, safety, peace of mind, and satisfaction.

It’s easy to think of examples of bad design in your life. In my house, it’s the bucket that catches the ice in my freezer. No matter what I or my family members do, when we try to take out a few ice cubes, several end up on the floor. There’s nothing for it! That’s not user error – that’s a design flaw.

Many design flaws in our lives are trivial — just annoyances, really. But flaws in the design of programs or products meant to address human problems can hurt people. A sad example: In the 1960s and 1970s, many municipalities sought to improve living conditions for impoverished citizens by building modern high-rise apartment complexes to replace sprawling ghettos of misery. Of course, many of these high-rise complexes — like Cabrini-Green, in Chicago, where I lived — simply became vertical ghettos of misery. Most have been torn down now, thankfully, as municipalities attempt more humane solutions to poverty.

Typically, the most basic ingredient missing in bad design — from the faulty ice-cube container and impenetrable packaging to housing projects like Cabrini-Green — is a real understanding of the experience of the end user.

To avoid costly errors, many businesses and, increasingly, nonprofits and NGOs, are embracing “design thinking,” a six-step process of product or program development that is rooted in empathy and characterized by creative collaboration and rapid experimentation and revision.

The six stages of design thinking are Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, and Revise. In brief, each step is as follows.

Empathize: Understand the people you hope to help and how your decisions will affect them. This means getting out of your office to observe, interview, and interact with your key audience.

Define: Compile all of your observations and carefully conceptualize and articulate a “design challenge” that clarifies the need you’ve discovered in a concise, targeted, and human-centered statement.

Ideate: Use ideation strategies (not just brainstorming) to generate a wide range of possible solutions to the identified challenge.

Prototype: Rapidly create a workable version of the one or two ideas you think are most likely to be effective. Software developers talk about producing a “minimal viable product” — an iteration that is good enough to elicit useful consumer feedback for further targeted revision. That’s your prototype.

Test and Revise: In this stage, test your prototype on prospective end-users. Prototyping, testing, and revising is an iterative process that closely involves the end user, keeping the channels of empathy and understanding open, continuing to revise until the product or program closely meets the needs of the intended recipients.

Like old age, design thinking is not for the faint of heart. Design thinking is a messy process that requires stamina, perseverance, creativity, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and openness to the experience of others. And it’s not always the strategy you need.

But when you’re feeling stuck, when your organization is experiencing malaise or stagnancy, when you need to shake it out and get a fresh perspective — then design thinking can be a valuable new tool for driving your organization to well-informed, empathic, and effective activities.

Theresa Reid has worked in board and staff leadership positions in the nonprofit sector for 30 years, most recently with the School of Art & Design and other colleges at the University of Michigan. The session she is presenting at BLF is titled “Using ‘Design Thinking’ to Enhance Your Organization’s Impact.” 

 

 

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